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Consciousness and Free Will

With the increased knowledge of cosmology, neuroscience and quantum mechanics in particular, some philosophical implications baffle us in our attempts to understand aspects of life and the universe. The intricacies of the laws of physics bestow upon us consciousness, the method by which we wonder and possibly the greatest mystery of all; the wonder of how the universe can ponder itself to begin with. 

Neurological activity governed by the laws of physics is what grants us our most precious trait: consciousness. Material forged in stars via nuclear fusion somehow acquired a method by which we can be aware of one self. As life became increasingly intricate, more information was required to be stored and processed in order to survive. Brains became apparent in species as a tool to become aware of surroundings and store information that would be useful in their fight for survival. In the process of the evolution of larger brains capable of storing more information came consciousness; the pinnacle of awareness. After becoming aware of their surroundings, animals became aware of themselves. The Greeks were the first to ponder the nature of the mind. Does the mind abide by the laws of nature? After about 20 centuries, we finally have an understanding. Well, the beginning of an understanding. 

Your thoughts, desires, emotions and actions all arise from physical processes of the brain and its interaction with your nervous system. Neurological activity is nothing more than physics and chemistry at play. Electrical and chemical signals are used to transport information via sensory and motor neurons which allow you to see, think, do and feel. We are all biological clockwork governed by laws which we are capable of dissecting and understanding. In the same way that knowing all aspects of a closed system can be used to determine a past or future state of the system, scientific determinism is a causal-determinism which implies that all physical processes are classified as deterministic given the premise that all aspects of the environment and system are known to a significant degree of accuracy. This is no different than high school physics textbooks neglecting friction to determine a future state of, say, a trajectory with a given initial velocity and other values. Taking friction into consideration does indeed make the situation significantly more difficult, but this does not mean that in principle it is not possible to determine these values. Similarly, with biological activity simply being clockwork of physics and chemistry which abide by laws, it is in principle to determine past and future states of a biological system given that all information about its present state is known. 

Following this premise, something as intricate and seemingly misplaced from the laws of physics can be in principle completely deterministic. This includes, but is not limited to, your thought processes. In the situation of being given a set of choices, one may maintain the notion that by choosing, one is practicing free will. But what truly allowed you to make such a decision? What it comes down to is biology and physics doing what they do best. Analyzing the situation at hand involves thought which is fundamentally physical processes with motor and sensory neurons working with your brain, nervous system and the rest of your body to transport these ideas. On the microscopic scale, it is nothing more than synaptic transmissions, chemical signals and voltage gradients, concentration differences of ions driving ion pumps and diffusion and ultimately, transportation of information. In essence, thought is nothing more than physics and chemistry working on the microscopic scale to elicit consciousness on the macroscopic scale. It is the blurry line between the two that we do not seem to currently understand which ultimately provokes scientists to conclude that we are the product of not only dead stars but physical processes which are governed by laws, not free will.

The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.

Sam Harris

Perhaps life and consciousness itself is in principle no more deterministic than the position of the Earth around the Sun. How much more beautiful can the universe really get?

Filed under free will illusion philosophy scientific determinism consciousness

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